- Flair Bears founder talks coaching philosophies and a life-changing diagnosis
- “Things don’t happen for a reason. You make the reason out of what has happened.”
Barty Hills is the next subject of Real Rugby Stories, our series of features that celebrates heroes across the grassroots game, from club stalwarts to inspiring youngsters and everything in between.
When a fairly full schedule allows, Barty Hills is making his way through James Kerr’s leadership handbook Legacy. Insightfully detailing 15 lessons on “what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life”, it is apt reading material for an inspirational young man.
First off, the choice of hardback accentuates Hills’ ardent passion for rugby. Every facet of the sport interests and excites him. This laid-back 27 year-old would just as readily immerse himself in a tale from Herefordshire – where he currently coaches at Luctonians RFC and Lucton School – as one from Hamilton, a Maori heartland on New Zealand’s North Island.
Secondly, the word ‘legacy’ itself resonates pertinently with a different kind of heritage Hills has established. Richie McCaw’s charges may not initially seem to possess much in common with a side that plays in sevens and beach rugby tournaments across Europe, cartoon characters emblazoned on their shirts. Even so, the Flair Bears represent something special – an outlet for fun forged from adversity.
This is the team Hills founded in 2009, two years after being diagnosed with a benign meningioma. To you and me, that is a type of brain tumour. Although non-cancerous and slow-growing, they generate life-changing side effects and trauma.
To rewind slightly, Hills won a rugby scholarship to Royal Hospital School near Ipswich and captained the 1st XV. Completing his A-Levels there, he took a year as a gap student at the Scots College in Sydney prior to starting as an Oxford Brookes University student. It was in Australia that a few concerning anomalies cropped up.
“I lost some coordination down the right side of my body,” he recalls, calmly and articulately. “I first noticed it taking a knock on the knee and getting a sort of nerve twinge.
“Then I’d start having strange reservations about kicking because I was making far more mistakes that usual. Tennis was another thing. I used to play a bit and just stopped being able to control strokes at all.
“After finishing at Scots, I went over to South Africa where my parents had moved. I had a few headaches and was told it was a sinus problem.
“At university they continued and I was told to stop eating chocolate because it was contributing to migraines. I remember thinking ‘That’s funny. I’m pretty sure I don’t eat that much.’
“Then it was double-vision, so I visited an optician. Finally, I sneezed one day and had a facial seizure. That scared me a lot because I looked like Sylvester Stallone.”
On a Tuesday in November, Hills went to John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford with his mother. Though a CT scan returned nothing, an MRI identified a large tumour. The next day, a seven-hour operation was required to de-bulk it. Given its precarious location, the growth could not be removed completely. Regular check-ups are needed, and we catch up the day after one such appointment.
“I guess if you are going to have a brain tumour, it’s the one you would ask for,” comes a charmingly mischievous quip from Hills, before something starker.
“Yesterday I saw on the scan that it had grown a few millimetres though, and that wasn’t nice. It’s a waiting game. The longer you wait, the better technology gets. And if the tumour begins to cause problems, you operate.”
Such a rational outlook must have helped throughout five long months of post-operation recuperation. But, as Hills poignantly admits, a sturdy family network was also vital upon the understandably unnerving diagnosis.
“You get more touched emotionally by the support of people and the messages that come in. It’s very powerful, and it continues to be.
“My mum is a bit squeamish, but she was the only one standing with me at the time the doctor gave me the news. If she had folded, I was gone. The fact that she stood, there, took it and said ‘yeah, OK’ to the diagnosis was amazing.
“When you don’t know what is wrong and someone tells you it is a brain tumour, it hits you hard. It’s the last thing you are expecting. Mum’s attitude was phenomenal. It helped me go to the next stage, which was ‘how do we rectify this’.”
If fixing the situation might not be a physiological possibility, proactivity and positivity have proved fantastic antidotes. Ten months after going under the knife, Hills returned to Oxford Brookes and switched his degree from Internal Relations and Politics to Sports Coaching, realising that “the impact of sport and how it can help people” was something his career simply had to revolve around.
He stayed true to his initial urge. Following graduation and a two-and-a-half-year stint with the Rugby Football Union’s events and competitions team, he moved back out of London last August. Splitting time between Lucton and Luctonians, he has completed his level one coaching qualification and is about to embark on level two.
Due in no small part to a few radical perspective shifts in his life thus far, Hills draws on a distinct philosophy when directing training sessions.
“‘Flair’ is the main word,” he explains with a grin. “For me, that sums up the enjoyment and the fun side of sport. Lucton is a small school and we don’t necessarily have a big rugby reputation. At the important tournaments, I love telling the guys to express themselves.
“It’s about making sure they keep perspective more than anything I think. It’s important for them to perform, but they shouldn’t be worried about pressure. I’m not going to tell them off for making mistakes, because if they don’t try things, it becomes boring.
“I remember going to a local 10-a-side tournament. The games were just 20 minutes long. Some other coaches were taking their players on a walk round the pitch, telling them they should kick at goal from a penalty this area, that they should do something different somewhere else. It seemed quite strange.
“My approach is totally different – you should never kick at goal in a 20-minute match anyway – and I think it gives players confidence. I won’t be changing it.”
This leads on nicely to the second string of Hills’ rugby life. Having badgered doctors about a potential return to playing since surgery, he was eventually allowed to join the fray once more. A trip to visit his elder brother at St Andrews presented the opportunity to enter a team into the illustrious Ma Bells Sevens.
In a bid to unite Hills’ mates from Royal Hospital and Oxford Brookes, the Flair Bears were born. Six years on and primed to take on the Beach Rugby International Cup in Lignano as well as a host of other tournaments this summer, the invitational outfit is going stronger than ever.
“The name came very naturally. At the beginning it was a case of just thinking something up, but as time has gone on I think it just fits. The Flair Bears is unique, and I think that is why people respond to it. We’ve had a mix of abilities right up to top, top sevens players but everyone gets treated the same.
“It tends to grow organically. Someone might invite someone along for a tournament, they’ll enjoy it and get another one of their friends involved in turn. There are some originals, but often you find somebody just gets the spirit of what we’re about straightaway.
“Steve Wood is a great example. He used to play at Richmond and Esher – he loves it so much. He’s Squidgy Bear…he put on a bit of weight at one point.”
Each Flair Bear vows to flaunt some skills, both on playing surface and dancefloor, and gets a nickname they wear like a badge of honour in exchange. Though Hills has been free from symptoms of epilepsy for a few months and is now able to drive again, he had to deal with sporadic seizures for a time. He is Danger Bear, testament to that as well as one crazy coincidence.
“I was thinking of Danger Mouse and thought it was pretty cool. Then my mum reminded me of the doctor who diagnosed my tumour. He was Dr Danger. No word of a lie.”
Hills’ sense of humour is as infectious as his enthusiasm for ambitious rugby. Almost inevitably, he is nursing a sore shoulder because he “tried a ridiculous offload” for Luctonians a few weeks back.
To underestimate the serious side to all of this would be mightily unfair, though. The Flair Bears have a burgeoning relationship with Brainstrust, a specialist brain tumour charity, and there are future plans for an academy where “sufferers can put their minds to sport, rather than anything else” for a while.
All in all, Hills can be hugely satisfied with the story so far. His creation truly is a breath of fresh air based on the happiest ethos imaginable. Indeed, the way he quantifies success – valuing camaraderie among fellow Flair Bears above all – tells you everything you need to know.
“Whether it’s at a tournament or just meeting up with them, I do feel massively proud. Even if it’s just connecting a couple of Flair Bears that have never met at a bar somewhere, it’s bringing people together.
“It’s great to hear it from the others too. Every now and then someone will remind me that I was the one to have the brain tumour that started everything off. That’s pretty cool.
“This is a bit cheesy, I know, but there’s a motto I tell myself quite a lot. It goes: ‘Things don’t happen for a reason. You make the reason out of what has happened.’”
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